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November 18, 2009 9:49 AM   Subscribe

How does Hollywood film unsuitable-for-children scenes involving children?

I'm thinking of scenes like these [audio NSFW], from Todd Solondz's Happiness, or Jodie Foster's role in Taxi Driver. I'm sure fellow MeFites can think of others. Are there any laws or guidelines for directing a child in scenes s/he would be too young to watch in the theater? How do directors approach the situation? And what effect might involvement in roles with decidedly adult content have on child actors' tender young psyches?
posted by stuck on an island to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Apparently during the filming of Little Miss Sunshine, Abigail Breslin was wearing earplugs so she couldn't hear the inappropriate dialogue. At least this is what I have heard -- IANAD (director).
posted by keener_sounds at 10:09 AM on November 18, 2009

In Danny Lloyd's (the six year old boy in Kubrick's The Shining) wikipedia entry, it says that Kubrick was able to film all of his parts without him realizing that he was in a horror movie. Doesn't say how exactly but suggests one approach to this question.
posted by extrabox at 10:10 AM on November 18, 2009

By law, when film productions work with minors, there must be a social worker on set to monitor and maintain the child's well-being. They also make sure the child doesn't work more than the legal limit of hours, and attends school, as well.
posted by headspace at 10:15 AM on November 18, 2009

I know from listening to director's commentaries (Rob Zombie's Halloween remake commentary comes to mind but there are others) that parents just give permission, and the kids often revel in the ability to curse and be around cursing. I mean, think of the average stage parent as seen on some of those reality shows about child beauty queens...for a chance to get their child into a major motion picture parents will agree to LOTS, and if one set of parents don't agree then there are dozens of other parents more desperate and ready to agree to anything.
posted by arniec at 10:15 AM on November 18, 2009

From what I've read, on "Taxi Driver", they had a social worker on hand during all of Jodie Foster's scenes, and her mom was always present as well. Probably neither were necessary, since Ms. Foster was such a precocious 13 year-old.

I recall also reading about a movie recently where Dakota Fanning had a rape scene or something. The way she spoke about it to the press, it seemed like she was completely aware of the nature of the scene and maybe her parents or a social worker had very carefully explained it all to her. But again, I think she's cut from the same cloth as Jodie Foster, so she was pretty capable of working it all out for herself.

I think sometimes, especially with younger kids, the kids are put into a single shot and the lines they're responding to are not the same as those that are in the script.
posted by wabbittwax at 10:20 AM on November 18, 2009

I know a woman who is a studio teacher in Hollywood. This is all anecdotal, but as she described it to me, her job went far beyond tutoring kids and well into the realm of deciding what was or wasn't appropriate for kids to participate in on-set/onscreen. According to her, she was even able to overrule the parents' choices in cases where the parents thought a scene was OK for their kid but the studio teacher did not. (I am not aware of cases where she would overrule the parents if they thought a scene was inappropriate; that is, she wouldn't ever make the kid to do something the parents or the kid found uncomfortable.) However, at the end of the day, she made it sound like the call was technically her's to make.

It was fascinating because so much of it seemed to rely on her judgment and, as she told it, she butted heads with a lot of people on-set over these very issues. But she was well-versed in the very long set of rules for child actors and interpreted those to the best of her ability. She considered herself to be an advocate for child actors first, and a school teacher second.
posted by juliplease at 10:21 AM on November 18, 2009

Wikipedia re: Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver

"Some critics expressed concern over 13 year old Jodie Foster's presence during the climactic shoot-out. However, Foster stated that she was present during the setup and staging of the special effects used during the scene; the entire process was explained and demonstrated for her, step by step. Rather than being upset or traumatized, Foster said, she was fascinated and entertained by the behind-the-scenes preparation that went into the scene.[1] In addition, before being given the part, Foster was subjected to psychological testing to ensure that she would not be emotionally scarred by her role, in accordance with California Labor Board requirements.[15]"

I find it interesting that they were concerned about her presence during a "shoot-out" but no real mention (beyond the last sentence) that her playing a prostitute would be an issue.

Also, note the reference to California Labor Board having psychological testing requirements.
posted by anastasiav at 10:27 AM on November 18, 2009

Oh, and the Dakota Fanning "rape movie" is a film called Hounddog

Script excerpt via The Smoking Gun
posted by anastasiav at 10:33 AM on November 18, 2009

This was a big issue during the filming of The Exorcist.

"In the disturbing scene where The Devil/Regan is masturbating with the crucifix Linda Blair said she had no idea what it was supposed to mean, she was just bringing down the crucifix into a box.

The voice of the demon was dubbed by adult actress Mercedes McCambridge. She had to sue Warner Brothers for credit as the voice of the demon."

Of course, that wasn't a normal shoot by any means, William Friedkin was kind of a sadist.
posted by The Whelk at 10:35 AM on November 18, 2009

"For the vomiting sequences, Eileen Dietz doubled (uncredited) for Linda Blair, and later sued unsuccessfully for puking credit. "

"In the documentary included on the 25th Anniversary Edition, the actors reveal that in many shots it was not necessary to "act", as what was captured on film were genuine reactions. For example, Ellen Burstyn mentions that her scream and facial reaction after being slapped by Regan were due to being pulled too hard by a harness. Linda Blair`s screaming was a reaction to being bounced around on her bed. Reverend William O`Malley recalled that William Friedkin slapped him prior to shooting and this caused his hand to tremble while blessing Father Karras."

So, yah not your average experience.
posted by The Whelk at 10:43 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think this interview with a young Jena Malone is a pretty good example. The film is Bastard Out Of Carolina and it involves a lot of child abuse.
posted by Procloeon at 10:44 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

This from the Wikipedia entry for the movie "Birth", with Nicole Kidman and an 11 year old Cameron Bright...

"The film generated controversy due to a scene wherein Kidman shares a bath with Bright, both apparently naked. In fact, Bright was never naked and the two actors were never even in the same room during the filming of the bath scene apart from one camera shot, and when this shot happened both actors wore special clothes that were not visible to the camera."
posted by Lucinda at 10:49 AM on November 18, 2009

You're forgetting the power of simple movie magic.

The kid(s) don't have to be on set for every single moment.

* In every cutaway where the kid isn't on screen, he could theoretically be back in his/her trailer playing with Legos.
* In every cutaway where he's on screen, the other actor might not be there.
* Shots not showing the face, or even quick, blurry shots showing faces, can be stunt doubles.
* ADR can replace dialog, especially where the camera isn't directly focused on the actor's mouth.

Granted, this doesn't really describe every movie, or even what's happening in Happiness and Taxi Driver. But just as that wasn't really Harrison Ford getting dragged behind the truck in Raiders, the filmmakers can quite easily fool you with seemingly simple shots.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:51 AM on November 18, 2009

RE: Todd Solondz. I recall an interview where he simply said, "There's no surprises on my sets. I shoot what's in the script. If a child actor's parents have issues with the subject matter, the kid will never even audition."

Also, I recall an interview with Greg Araki regarding "Mysterious Skin" where he described how they worked with really young kids in scenes such as this one. [WARNING: disturbing] Cut together, it's quite shocking, but if you break it down shot by shot, insert by insert, you realize that, short of a few foul words, the kids didn't actually do (or see) anything. In other words, they really had no idea what the scene was about.

Good filmmaking is sleight of hand. Always has and always will be.
posted by philip-random at 10:55 AM on November 18, 2009

This is from the Art and Pop Culture Encyclopedia's entry on Mysterious Skin, which is completely brutal to watch:

To protect the young actors playing the parts of the abused children, scenes with the children were shot separately from other scenes. Araki has said, “Chase and George had separate scripts from the rest of the cast”. The scenes were then later edited to give the appearance of the abuse happening to the children.
posted by amarynth at 10:57 AM on November 18, 2009

The young Sarah Polley had a miserable time filming ">The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. "It hardened and isolated me for years. It also created a pretty substantial lack of trust in my parents".

posted by Conductor71 at 11:00 AM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Slightly off topic in that it doesn't directly concern scary/adult situations, but here's an open letter/exchange between Sarah Polley and Terry Gilliam a few years ago regarding her experiences filming The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as a child.
posted by yellowbinder at 11:03 AM on November 18, 2009

As a person who has spent years on film sets, Cool Papa Bell and Philip-Random have it right. Every frame that doesn't include the child's face was shot without the child there. And there's always a studio teacher on set.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:13 AM on November 18, 2009

According to the DVD commentary, when filming the "I loved to draw dicks" scene in Superbad they got an actress with very small hands for the upclose shots of the dicks being drawn.
posted by nestor_makhno at 11:25 AM on November 18, 2009

In a Fresh Air interview recently, Anna Paquin said that she got the Taxi Driver treatment in The Piano when her fictional mom gets her finger chopped off and her character is present--they walked her through all the special effects beforehand so it wouldn't be scary. And, of course, in the scenes where she 'sees' Harvey Keitel naked, she's actually looking at a wall or something.

She said she wasn't allowed to watch the film for which she'd won an Oscar until several years later.
posted by Beardman at 11:38 AM on November 18, 2009

When I watched the behind the scenes stuff for Blood Diamond (Blu-ray version), they talked about how they dealt with the kids that portray the child soldiers. It sounds like they did the Taxi Driver thing, plus discussed the historical basis for the roles and how the scenes affected them personally.
posted by fiercekitten at 11:58 AM on November 18, 2009

Anna Paquin recently did an interview with Fresh Air talking about her childhood recollections of filming The Piano (fast forward to around 13:00) and winning awards for a film she wasn't allowed to see until she was an adult.
posted by jrishel at 11:59 AM on November 18, 2009

Beardman beat too it the reference, but I have the link!
posted by jrishel at 12:01 PM on November 18, 2009

I seem to remember that during some of the extensive media coverage surrounding Chris Morris' Brass Eye Paedophilia special apparently for the swearing and edgy script stuff (like discussing pedophilia in front of children) substituted none swear-words for the swearing and other lines for the rest and the real dialogue dubbed in afterwards.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:04 PM on November 18, 2009

I wrote a paper about the Lolita remake back in college and I remember a lot of articles at the time talking about the precautions taken with Dominique Swain, who played Lolita. She was 15 at the time. A body double was used for many of the sex scenes, but there are still a few - notably the one where she's on his lap in the rocking chair - when it's clearly her. They apparently had to have a pillow on Jeremy Irons's lap at all times. (IMDb trivia page which mentions some of it.)
posted by web-goddess at 6:50 PM on November 18, 2009

I would imagine there's also a huge difference: actors know they are playing dressup. Especially with child actors, where things are explained carefully to them. It's less inappropriate to play dressup than for a kid with a shaky grasp of the borderline between reality and fantasy to see a well-presented--if inappropriate--story.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:25 PM on November 18, 2009

I recently saw The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (a movie about kids during World War II) and read a couple of articles afterwards. They wanted the young actors (both 8 years old) to portray innocence, so they asked them what they knew about the Holocaust and didn't tell them unnecessary details. They also shot the scenes in order to slowly prepare the boys for the film's ending.

Possible spoiler warning:

The last scene involves the boys being shoved naked into a room full of naked men. The article didn't mention exactly how this was accomplished but said that there were all kinds of legalities regarding what the boys could see. They also said the set was swarming with lawyers.

The articles I read are in the references section of the film's Wikipedia page and a section in the linked article to Asa Butterfield's page.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:48 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

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